Symbolic Cities

Washington D.C.

DISPATCH BY: SEAN FOLEY

This week the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery begins hosting “Symbolic Cities,” the first solo show in America dedicated to the works of Ahmed Mater, one of Saudi Arabia’s top young artists and intellectuals. Over the last decade, Mater has been among the leading figures in an artistic movement that has altered both what is discussed in public and the manner in which contentious issues are presented. Today the artistic movement includes men and women working in genres from animation to film to standup comedy.

Ahmed Mater at the opening of Symbolic Cities in front of Golden Hour (2012)

Remarkably, the artistic movement did not begin in one of the major cities of central Saudi Arabia but in Abha, the capital of Asir, a mountainous southern province on the Saudi-Yemeni border. In the early 2000s, Mater, who was then an emergency-room physician, met with a group of young professionals, none of whom had artistic training but still desired to be painters, photographers, or sculptors. They took advantage of the internet to learn as much as possible about both art and established social practices in Saudi Arabia. For them, the internet functioned as a kind of majlis—a central institution of their society. The majlis is an entity in which family or friends gather for extended periods and in which discussion is possible. It was through the internet—their majlis—that they had a vision of what might be possible for them as artists. These artists also became aware of a tradition of the arts that addressed social concerns while remaining apolitical; and, finally, they learned of the system of Saudi elites—an institution related to but separate from state patronage. While the new social trends created fresh areas for both free discussion of ideas and social networking, older structures provided resources for artists to develop their talents and maintain spaces to publicly voice their ideas.

Mater (second from left) with the Shattah collective in Abha, 2003

As Mater and his colleagues developed as artists, Mater brought creativity, energy, a sense of humor, and an implicit trust in his audience. Adnan Manjal, a leading Saudi art critic, once told me, “Mater allows people to read into his work what they want…to have their own take, so to speak.” Mater also brought to his art an ability to synthesize cultures, intellectual genres, and professions. Indeed, he imagines himself in global rather than in narrow, nationalist terms. The influence of Ansel Adams, the famous American photographer and environmentalist, was so important that Mater joked to me that he had become “an American” through him.

He also drew on the work of two other leading American photographers: the famous Work Progress Administration artist Walker Evans and Diane Arbus, an artist known for her photography of marginalized groups in society.

Mater combined these American influences with Saudi ones. He has been influenced by Sayyid ‘Abd al-Ghaffar Baghdadi, a Jeddah-based physician and photographer who aided the Dutch traveler Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje in producing his pictures of Mecca in the late nineteenth century. Although Mater was born in northern Saudi Arabia, he was raised in a mountain village in Asir by the Tihama Tribe. The men of the tribe fiercely defended its customs and traditions, including that of men wearing garlands of dried flowers and herbs, a practice that has earned them the nickname, “the flower men.” Mater’s wife, Arwa al-Neami, is a talented rising artist in her own right, while Mater’s mother is a housepainter (in the traditional Asiri style) and a calligrapher. She taught him from an early age that the arts were a vehicle for preserving culture, heritage, and religion. Those values continue to guide his artwork and his firm conviction that the creation and experience of art should fill a social role.

Mater in his village of Rijal Alma in the South West of Saudi Arabia

Perhaps no work of Mater’s show embodies this consciousness more clearly than the painting Television—a painting featuring multiple mirage (or surrealistic) images in a desert setting. In the foreground, there is a television, a set of Bedouin coffee cups, and a woman reclining on a couch. Behind her there is a man leading a donkey flanked by a modern highway and a single white car driving away from the viewer. In the distance, we see electrical poles, a cube-like structure, mountains, and the moon. Together they illustrate the forces that shaped Saudi Arabia’s transition from a poor and traditional rural society in the 1960s to the urban and technologically-advanced society of today. Whereas Saudis once only entertained themselves in a majlis while drinking coffee or traveled with donkeys, today they watch television, drive cars, and use electricity. Yet memories of the past persist—as in Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory.” What do these various contexts have to do with one another? It is up to the observer, the individual Saudi person with all his history, to create the links that connect these various elements to one another. Mater challenges his viewer to become a kind of artist himself: to create the deep connections at which Mater himself only hints. We are dealing here with collage, certainly, but it is collage which becomes collision and finally—perhaps—an unexpected harmony. The work is in a certain sense chordal—functioning as a chord does in music. Various elements, harmonious and dissonant, are all present and in touch with one another. They exist as a fundamental, culture-defining question. What does it mean to be Saudi? What does it mean to have all these elements in simultaneous, conscious insistence?

Television, Ahmed Mater (2015), from the series Ashab Al-Lal/Fault Mirage

Ultimately, Mater’s ability to produce such a powerful juxtaposition without embarrassment and with great confidence says much about him personally as an artist but also provides insight into what we as Americans might learn from his show and his country. During this year of the “political outsider” in America, vexing existential questions have come to define our electoral process, forcing us all to choose between seemingly incompatible conceptions of national identity and how to view the world. Donald Trump is like what medieval musicians called diabolus in musica, the dissonant element in the chord which forces us to question our much vaunted unity. By contrast, and perhaps surprisingly, Mater and other Saudis are used to negotiating among wildly disparate contexts—contexts which many in the West and some in the Middle East may find contradictory, but which the Saudis experience as part of the multiple faces of reality.

Ahmed Mater's, Cowboy Code (Hadith), 2012

In an interview conducted in 2014, Mater stated, “It is more interesting to be an artist surrounded by challenges like ours than to be an artist surrounded by too much choice and unrestricted opportunity.” And: “Now the contemporary artists are re-imagining this place.”

Watch Guardian video from CULTURUNNERS Crossing the Line series: A Prayer for Mecca


DATE: 29 March 2016


Dr. Sean Foley is an Associate Professor of History at Middle Tennessee State University (USA) and specializes in the Middle East and the Islamic world. He has published widely and been a Fulbright scholar in Malaysia, Syria, and Turkey. From April 2013 through January 2014, he lived and traveled in Saudi Arabia. His first book, The Arab Gulf States: Beyond Oil and Islam, was published by Lynne Rienner Press in 2010. He is now finishing a book on the kingdom that features an extensive discussion of the Saudi arts movement, including the work of Ahmed Mater. His website is www.seanfoley.org. Follow him on Twitter @foleyse.

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